Some ten or twenty years after the Society of the Dilettanti, whom I read about in the London Review of Books, began pushing the English cultural scene to look beyond the usual Grand Tour through Italy to the wonders of Greece. Members traveled to Greece and produced drawings and books about Greek sculpture and architecture which influenced English taste for architecture and interior decoration that can still be seen in London's National Gallery, the British Museum and the interior of the Spencer House in London, to name just a few.
While touring Italy may have become old hat in England, in Germany Goethe has seen almost none of the Italian treasures that make up the core of his aesthetic. Already famous as the author of The Sorrows of Young Werther and numerous plays, he had been invited to join the government. of Weimar and had served there in several important capacities for eleven years when he suddenly in 1786 takes a leave of absence and sets off for Italy to see with his own eyes the landscapes and art that he loves. He says, “. . . in Rome the history of art and the history of mankind confront us simultaneously.” At the same time, he wants to make a break with a life that, while it rescued and protected him from the overwhelming and hysterical fame from Werther and the innate artistic limitations of the spontaneity of emotions trumpeted by the Sturm und Drang movement, has itself become a limitation. Having outgrown his friends and life in Weimar and burdened with unfinished works such as Faust, Egmont and Iphigenie, Goethe travels to Italy to find solitude and inspiration.
. . . I am a voluntary exile, a wanderer by design, unwise with a purpose, everywhere a stranger and everywhere at home, letting my life run its course where it will, rather than trying to guide it, since, in any case, I don't know where it will lead me.
Goethe wants to know everything and understand first-hand the principles underlying art and nature. Already interested in geology, he describes the minerals and stones he finds on his travels and how the underlying geology affects the lands through which he travels. Like my other solitary walker, Goethe adds botany to his list of interests, studying plants to discover what they might have in common, the ur-plant as it were. This is the time of the great amateur naturalists—the term “scientist” would not be created until some 50 years later.
This book is primarily a collection of his letters to his friends in Weimar, edited later and supplemented with some reflections. His method of description is interesting in that he avoids metaphor. He provides detailed sensory descriptions but rarely describes much of an emotional response, even when he is caught in an unexpected eruption while standing at the mouth of Vesuvius. In addition to descriptions of landscapes and artworks, many of his letters describe what he is learning and what he is working on, as though he still needs to justify his desertion.
I have reached an age when, if I still want to produce something, I must not lose any time. As you can imagine, I have hundreds of new ideas in my head, but the main thing is making, not thinking . . . Therefore, do not grudge me my time here, which for me is so strange and exciting, but give your loving approval to my stay in Rome.
He often describes his tricks for avoiding the demands of society, such as maintaining his incognito as long as possible. However, through the one person he knows in Rome, the painter Tischbein, he mingles with many artists and is invited to view private art collections. He meets Sir William and Emma Hamilton and becomes friends with Angelica Kauffman, who he says would prefer to paint what she pleases but is persuaded by her husband to accept the many lucrative commissions offered, even though the couple have plenty of money. “What's the use of talking about misery and misfortune when people who have enough of everything do not know how to use it or enjoy it?” However, he generously goes on to say, “One must look for what she does, not what she fails to do. How many artists would stand the test if they were judged only by their failings?” Throughout these pages he mentions often how hard she works and how much she accomplishes.
Goethe supplements his growing understanding of and appreciation for art with lessons in drawing and sculpture, traveling with his artist friends to nearby locations of interest such as Pompeii, Frascati, and the Palantine Marshes, and through their comments learning about perspective and color. He studies the Sistine Chapel assiduously, and sets out to learn anatomy for himself.
I enjoyed comparing his descriptions of Italy's relics, art, and music to my own more recent memories. I can also relate to his struggles as a writer. He says, “I am always hoping to do more than I actually manage to do.” Rejuvenated by his travels, Goethe did come home to complete such great works as Faust, the Wilhelm Meister books, Tasso. He also continued working on his scientific theories about biology, anatomy, and color.
Nothing, above all, is comparable to the new life that a reflective person experiences when he observes a new country. Though I am still always myself, I believe I have been changed to the very marrow of my bones.